This week is the anniversary of the transformation of the little island that has always sat out in Newburgh Bay. Morning commuters riding down Water Street see it in the dawn mists as do people riding the train out of Beacon’s Metro North station. It was a wild and rocky spot in the Hudson River until December 5, 1900 when Mr. Francis Bannerman bought it from Mrs. Mary Taft.
Mrs. Taft had never utilized its land but had owned the island (called Pollepel Island through the 18th and 19th centuries) as part of the enterprise her family had developed around Cornwall Bay: Mead and Taft, builders and dealers in building supplies. By the 1880’s Mary Taft was bothered by the number of drunks and bootleggers who rowed to her docks from the unpatrolled island. She found the ideal buyer in Francis Bannerman. For him, the island was ideal. He ran an armory business, buying surplus materials after wars and selling them to smaller national armies or to assorted groups in need of his wares. Uniforms often outfitted marching bands. Old weapons and costume parts were suited to theatrical performances. Expedition supplies (like the odd cache of hooded reindeer skin fur coats) attracted adventurers. Bannerman ran a giant Army-Navy store starting in Brooklyn, then lower Manhattan until his New York neighbors complained that his stored gunpowder would threaten their homes and shops. He sought a more isolated spot for an armory and found it at the lonely island in Newburgh Bay.
Being of Scot ancestry, Francis Bannerman designed his new business location to fit the river like ancient castles fit the rivers and lochs of his native land. The Hudson Valley had seen some magnificent mansions rise along its shores but never such a fanciful structure as the Bannerman castle complex. From 1901 through 1918 a growing set of armories, warehouses, worker’s lodges and finally a family vacation residence went up.
All were built of local stone, brick and stucco and most were reinforced with the metal of old armaments.
From Francis to the administration of his sons and grandsons, the Bannerman’s Arsenal business lasted into the 1970’s but its Hudson River island location closed in 1958. Some of the last items loaded for transport to the new Bannerman warehouse in Blue Point, Long Island were Civil War caissons. They just might have been made right here since a manufacturing plant for such gun carriages existed on the Quassaick Creek in the 1860’s.
After the exit to Long Island, the old arsenal was empty but for scattered and broken remnants of its stock that intrigued scavengers who rowed out to explore. In August of 1969, a devastating fire gutted the castle and its massive tower. Flames rose over 100 feet above the island and could be seen all the way to Goshen. Most of Newburgh watched helplessly along with Beacon firemen and state police. The heat was too much to approach (the castle’s wooden floor decking was made from old ship planks heavily creosoted).
Yet the ruin that remained was worth stabilizing and saving for its historic and scenic value. New York State bought the island and incorporated it into Hudson Highlands State Park. It had status but no financial resources to keep the poison ivy and scrub trees from engulfing it – until a group of volunteers came forward and began to reclaim it with years of hard, hard work. In recent years, a launch carries tourists out for scheduled tours of the island that showcase what is left of the old armory (a December 2009 collapse of its north façade took away more of the fanciful castle but it has been stabilized to preserve what remains).
Not open in the winter, Bannerman’s Island sits enticingly on our near horizon calling us to dream of romantic castles and to plan a visit when navigation opens again in the spring. Until then, browse through its history and beautiful images at the website of its foundation and at a site called Hudson Valley Ruins where photographer Rob Yasinak has curated an intriguing display.
Also read the story of the island beautifully written and illustrated by Barbara Gottlock and Thom Johnson and available at local bookstores or the library. The book is dedicated to old Francis Bannerman who used some of his business profits to establish a museum where the study of war would encourage the world to stop waging it.